Why you should be on the phone with customers

Everyone in a startup knows the score — late nights, fast food cartons piled up next to the monitor, and industrial quantities of caffeine. But, while you might wear your red eyes as a badge of honor, too much alienation will work against you. That’s why this week’s growth hack deals with the most basic customer strategy of all. Are you ready?


Talk to your customers.


Stating the obvious

I can hear your objections. You’re an entrepreneur, not a relationship manager. You need to concentrate on growth. When you’re properly established, then you’ll be able to hire guys to find out what your customers are thinking. But there’s no time right now.

Well, everyone knows how hectic working life can become in a new business. You can’t leave the office door open to your entire user base. But neither can you afford to see your customers as dots on a graph. They’re real people, and they have the power to make or break your enterprise. You need to talk to them… some of the time.


Reaching out: the basics

There are three of secrets to consumer research for startups.

The first is: be proactive. If you wait for customers to come to you, you’re going to be dealing primarily with complaints, and you will become bitter and twisted. Reach out to them, and you’ll get a healthy mix of ‘bouquets and brickbats’ — positive and negative responses. Whatever the story, the fact that *you* initiated the approach will usually be in your favor.

The second is: use the phone. Face-to-face is a great way to gauge responses, but it’s very time-consuming. E-mail and social media are great for simple exchanges (like ‘Where’s my shipment at?’) but not so good for finding out what people actually *think*. The telephone is a happy medium.

The third is: quality, not quantity. You’ll get more insight from a few in-depth conversations than from a hundred 30-second exchanges.

Still sounds too abstract? How about ‘five by 5′ — five 5-minute calls each week?




Nice outline… now tell me what I actually do

So, you never phoned your customers before? Let’s break the process down into chunks.


#1. Who am I speaking to?
Go through your database and pick out all the phone numbers and Skype IDs you can. (You’ll likely find that only a minority of customers have given these, so you may need to do some scavenging.) Do some research at the same time, so you get a sense of the person behind the record.


#2. Set up your calls
Pick out your first batch of five, and drop each of them a personal note explaining who you are and why you want to talk to them. Offer a choice of time-slots that are likely to work for both of you. (Use common sense — don’t offer to call a working person at 9am, or a young parent at bedtime.) Call at the arranged time.


#3. Don’t be a robot
You’ll have to lead with survey-type questions — ‘What do you like most about our product/service?’, ‘Would you recommend it?’, ‘What might improve it?’ and so on. But, while it’s a smart idea to keep a ‘calls’ database, you shouldn’t let it dominate the conversation. Nothing turns off an interviewee like a checklist! Try to make a real connection. If all else fails, tell them the story of how you got your business off the ground.


#4. Dig deeper…
…to get the gold. Don’t to let your interviewee get away with ‘Yeses’ or ‘Nos’. Follow up every exchange with further questions: ‘Why is that?’, ‘How did you feel about that?’ And don’t lose sight of your own feelings, either. Right after the call, jot down your impressions. Was the interviewee supportive? Defensive? Uninterested? It’s easy to forget this kind of detail if you don’t take notes.


#5. Reflect
After you’ve made your first five calls, work through all your notes. Look for patterns. Some of this is obvious. (If everyone complains that they broke the widget-release flange right after unboxing, you need to talk to your product designer.) But some of the stories you hear will require a more subtle response. Why can’t they tell you why your service appeals to them so much? If they’re generally satisfied, why aren’t they recommending your product to their friends?

High-level customer relations is rather like psychiatry: the gaps in the interviewee’s story may be as significant as the things they tell you.




Keep it up

Phew! So, that’s your first week’s calls done. Now go on to batch #2 and set up next week’s calls. Remember: talking to your customers is hard work, but it delivers insights you won’t get anywhere else.

Next time, we’ll be looking at some third world ‘extreme telephony’ in search of growth hacks that you can apply to your own business.